Unschooling as a Political Activity


by Camy Matthay ©2000




Delight and liberty,

the simple creed of childhood




          Parents homeschool their children in America for many reasons, but the initial motive is generally protective -against an environment they see as unable to conform to their convictions about how children should be raised and educated.  For the most part, homeschooling parents on the political right homeschool their children to protect them from ideas and values that conflict with their religious beliefs, whereas homeschooling parents on the left are motivated by the desire to protect their children from an environment they foresee as incompatible with creative life.

          I am on the left end of the spectrum; to have expected my children to spend the best hours of their childhood in relative confinement from life would have been the worst sort of hypocrisy on my part -a violation of the Golden Rule.  Moreover, given the fact that my own experience in school had restrained my thinking while falsely inflating my ego, it was impossible for me to pretend that my children, even if they were ranked among the "gifted and talented," could survive the schooling experience ethically unscathed.

          Beyond my wariness about institutionalizing children, the style of attachment parenting I had adopted (since the birth of my first child) precluded an abrupt severance of the bonds and obligations I valued.  I had spent years honoring maternal work in a society that expected women to prioritize an income of their own.  Though others tried to convince me of the virtues of sending my kids to school and "getting another life," I was enchanted with the one that I had.  I loved being with my children, they ranked among the most entertaining people I knew and  -in the five years we had shared so far- among the best teachers I ever had; they had convinced me through their incessant desire to know more, to explore more, to want more complexity, that nothing short of darkness and confinement would keep their engagement in the world from growing more sophisticated.  I could not be complacent about "reassigning" the task of rearing and educating them to people I didn't know.          

          As the years went by, and so many of my assumptions about learning were deconstructed, I became increasing grateful that I hadn't caved in to the illusion of school as a benign, if not "great" institution.  Detached from one of the most ubiquitous conventions in the lives of American families, I saw that schools could not be responsive to the remarkable styles of learning that children develop, nor truly sensitive to the developmental differences that exist between children of a given age.  I saw how schools harm children by stratifying them in narrow classes, by encouraging them to compete against each other, by coercing them to do (often dull) work, by comparing their achievements against external standards, by rewarding the "best and brightest," and denigrating the rest.  In short, processes that had once seemed normal and inevitable now seemed inhumane and absurd.

          From my own experiences in school I knew how restricted the sympathy of teachers was for the great latitude of ability and talent that exists in children.  I saw how the shape of my own children's academic interests, superimposed against the typical "six major subject areas" of school curriculums, would look less like nice, neat hexagons, than octopi-like forms with various-sized tentacles; their abilities and investigations of the world were that unique.  Bearing in mind the relative freedom my children had to shape and structure their own lives, I understood what John Holt, author of How Children Fail, meant when he wrote that schools were sad places for children; that children deserved so much more since by nature they were so curious, so willing to participate in the social life of a particular place, and so hospitable to goodness. 

          In addition, I recognized that though the nominal purpose of schools -public or private- is to educate, as institutions, their primary purpose is, simply, to stay in business.  And so, vast resources, which could otherwise be used for more worthy social purposes, are diverted to support a bureaucratic infrastructure.  A corollary of this is that teachers, especially, those in government schools, cannot be half as creative as they might like to be since their job security relies on their own conformity to narrowly prescribed methods of instruction and on meeting standards of achievement dictated by state policies.

           One of the most difficult things for mainstream people to accept is that when children aren't meddled with, but just supported with resources that meet their declared needs, rarely does their desire to achieve competence fail them.  And that statement doesn't give the thinnest allusion to the extraordinary achievements of children who are encouraged to experiment and deviate, and are free to use their entire community as a resource for learning.

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           Children, as all parents know, are insatiably curious when they are not repressed.  Young children can be so outspoken and desirous of information that they are fatiguing.  This kind of desire and energy is inexhaustible; as a sole motivating force, it can fuel a lifetime of inquiry.  These observations alone ought to be enough to convince us that children don't need “teachers” -or schools.  For those of us who spent years in school waiting to be taught a "standard" curriculum by "certified" individuals, this is a difficult idea.  Yet, when we sift through the evidence of our own experience, we know that learning is independent of teaching.   As Peter Elbow wrote in Writing Without Teachers, since "students can learn without teachers even though teachers cannot teach without students, the deepest dependency is not of students upon teachers, but of teachers upon students."  The opposite seems to be true only when we have unwittingly come to accept the teaching function as concentrated in a class of professional specialists who do their work only in specialized localities.

           Before the l830's, i.e., before the advent of public schooling, children were educated by their parents, by their neighbors, and in their communities; the teaching "function" was diffused throughout the community.  It would not have occurred to parents to question their ability to help their children become useful members of society; life was filled with meaningful work, and children were welcome, if not expected, to watch, to listen, and to participate as fully as they were able in the work going on around them.  At that time in history, in the vital communities that existed, few parents would have had doubts about their ability to help their children achieve.

           Today, the most frequent response I hear from parents when confronted with the idea of homeschooling is "I couldn't do that," or even, "I could never do that."  This lack of self-confidence suggests many bad things, but in the most general and ubiquitous way, I think, reveals the extent to which schools have been successful in the subjugation of the masses they claim to "educate".  Whatever the reason may be, this shrunken capacity for responsibility betrays the degree to which parents have relinquished their independence and their family's autonomy to individuals "better" than themselves.  It also suggests how dependent parents have become on the baby-sitting function of schools; kids are attended to while their parents work to provide for their family's needs for shelter, sustenance, and the accouterments required to display their class position in society.

           Schools, again, as places that habitually judge and stratify human beings, have played a significant role in cultivating submissiveness to authoritarian and hierarchical principles.  Harsher critics -without any intended irony- would say that schools were never intended to train an alert, politically active body of citizens, but to inculcate habits of obedience and punctuality for the emerging industrial order; that the architects of the American educational establishment had obsessive concerns for industrial productivity and social order, and that schools were designed to create a compliant working class.  John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing us Down, summed it up this way, "Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid."

          Do we need schools?  No.  Children certainly don't.  Again, it's the other way around.  The more pertinent question -one that has gone dormant for about l70 years- is, who does need schools?  Well, it may seem pretty obvious who's going to lose their shirts if children don't go to school.  Teachers, administrators, and corporations that provide materials or services that would never be bought outside of schools -like textbooks, and (those "nutritious") schools lunches.  But actually, teachers, at least good teachers don't need schools any more than children do.  However, insofar as the word teacher means surrogate parent or day-care provider -yes, it is self-evident that communities need teachers since so many parents are not particularly interested in a life inclusive of children.  And we desperately need teachers who understand that preserving children, fostering their growth, and rendering them socially acceptable is a work of conscience. 

          If teaching means "imparting specific knowledge or skill", but not "systematic instruction" (Webster’s definitions of education), I also think that teachers can be useful, even critical, but only in a context where the student initiates the relationship and has control over the breadth and length of that engagement.  Such a relationship would be quite different from the authoritarian asymmetry found in schools; teachers in schools have the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed.  A relationship where students hire their own mentors and make their own arrangements for study would be different.  The seniority of the mentor could not inflate into arrogance or abuse without penalty.  Despite whatever stature the prospective mentor might have in their field of interest, if their talent is not counterbalanced by kindness and respect, their instructive role would come to naught; students who are disillusioned could move their attention elsewhere.   

          To my mind, this is the only educational relationship possible.  It would be no small thing to be sought out by students who are so impressed with your work that they long to receive some guidance in the interests and culture of your life.  In a community where such relationships are valued, the quality of teaching and teachers would be continually improving through self-correction.  Much honor would be accorded to teachers who would continue to be sought out for help and instruction, and bad teachers would be culled through neglect. 

          But what about the good teachers in schools? And what about schools?

          Again, unschoolers are not unaware of the fact that thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers, aides, and administrators.  However, we believe that the abstract logic of schools as institutions, and especially, of schools as institutions in the employ of a state (now overly aggrandized to suit the needs of its corporate sponsors), overwhelms the contributions that any individual may make on behalf of helping children to direct their own lives with dignity and integrity.  Public schools cannot do this because the criteria of measurable achievement, and the exigencies of classroom life -of coping, for example, with twenty-five children at once- demands efficiency and the subjugation of students.  Although it is commonly believed that private schools improve on many of these details, ironically, they rarely do.  Behind their elitist facades, various ideologies, even, in some cases, "child-centered" curriculums, private schools can make no claim to immunity from the worst flaw of public schools -that is, they circumscribe and restrict the lives of children.  

          As Grace Llewellyn put it in The Teenage Liberation Handbook, "the overwhelming reality of schools is CONTROL."  And schools control children by establishing standards for them to live up to or fall down on, and as Gatto wrote, "by pre-empting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables--and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways."  This is what parents accept when a slow, organic process of self-awareness, self-discovery, and cooperation is what is required for anyone to grow and develop with their humanity left intact.

          Even as early as l839, Orestes Brownson, one of the most perceptive critics of schools, wrote that those in favor of institutionalizing children had forgotten that children were "best educated in the streets, by the influence of their associates, in the fields and on the hill sides, by the influences of surrounding scenery and overshadowing skies . . . by the love and gentleness, or wrath and fretfulness of parents, by the passions and affection they see manifested, the conversations to which they listen, and above all by the general pursuits, habits, and moral tone of the community."  Schools robbed the potential of neighborhoods and communities to be, as they always had been, the best nurseries of civic life, and buttressed the most obnoxious feature of class societies, the separation of learning from life experiences.

          Under the pretext of offering parents a service, which parents were often forced -in some cases, at gunpoint- to accept, schools weakened families and replaced much of the "delight and liberty" of childhood with a classroom.  The educational establishment, thus, simultaneously procured a justification for taxing its citizens and a mechanism for manufacturing compliance to the requirements of the emerging industrial order.  Ignorant of the history of resistance in the formative years of public schooling, and so indoctrinated by the propaganda of the establishment, most parents today are actually grateful for this service that diminishes their wealth and freedom.  This process exemplifies the meaning of what Noam Chomsky called "the creation of necessary illusions" -in this case, the initial indignation of parents against mandatory schooling was transmuted into appreciation for the "experts" who know best. 

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          If schools did nothing more insidious than restrict the time and freedom that children would otherwise have to use their entire community as a resource for learning that would be depressing enough.  But, in addition, by imposing external standards against which the progress of children is measured, schools are injurious to the self-esteem of children -and not just to those who do not fit their models of development, but to all  children whether or not they are identified as "challenged" or "gifted and talented."  Schools mock egalitarian ideology and do further damage to the dignity of children when they require them to compete for promotion, rewards, and limited positions on the roster of "superior" beings. 

          John Holt, considered by many to be the grandfather of the "growing without schooling" movement, underscored the deleterious effects of measuring and testing children when he wrote, "I think the only way in which children, or indeed anybody gets a sense of dignity, competence, worth, and self-esteem is by succeeding by their standards to their own satisfaction, not anybody else's, at tasks of their own choosing.  They don't feel this way learning to jump through hoops which we hold up higher and higher. . . it is only when they choose a task and complete it to their own satisfaction that they get this sense of growth and development."  

          Whereas schools refer to and create dependence on external standards (increasingly crafted by corporations), unschoolers try to foster intellectual self-reliance.  Whereas schools measure children and confine their thinking to specific uniformities, unschoolers encourage children to gauge their own progress and to make up their own minds in the context of a complex world of dissenting opinions, obfuscation, and multiple histories.

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           Beyond the question of what schools do to  children, there is the whole question of what schools do for  children.  Schools, it is commonly understood, provide children with opportunities for advancement.  This is true.  Schools function as arenas where children are dazzled in various ways by the "promising" ideology of meritocracy and taught to compete for the "easy life".  Schools winnow the superior children from the inferior ones, whose "failures", of course, cannot be the responsibility of the system, since the losers, after all, were given an "equal opportunity" to succeed.  It is in this way that schools play a role in American society as a system of elite recruitment that appears to be fair and democratic.

          This system, however, is meritocratic, and is, in fact, a parody of democracy, since the "equal opportunities for advancement" that meritocracy in theory offers to everyone are (as everyone knows) unequal.  The notion that public and higher education is an efficient and equitable conveyor belt for ambition betrays a fundamental misunderstanding.  Anyone who takes a serious look at the history of compulsory schooling in America cannot doubt that schools have deflated aspirations more often than they nurtured or rewarded them.  Far from enhancing people capacity to exercise citizenship, for bolstering civic life, and "democratizing intelligence,” a meritocractic educational establishment merely promotes a broader recruitment of elites while essentially derailing the rest from dissent or imagination by undermining their self-regard.  Those who fall behind in such a system come to feel that the problems they face are their own failures to adjust to the given reality, rather than being able to identify and discuss their condition as a systemic failure of a society structured on supremacy and subservience.

          This process of selective recruitment by schools is one of the best courses of self-defense of the ruling elite since it drains talent away from lower classes and deprives them of potential leadership.  In addition, as Christopher Lasch pointed out in The Revolt of the Elites, meritocracy has the effect of making the new elites arrogant and secure by allowing them to maintain the fiction that the positions they have gained in the upper echelons of society rests exclusively on their own brainpower and diligence.  Invested in the hubris of thinking of themselves as "self-made", these new elites have little awareness of what others have sacrificed on their behalf.   They tend to merely put up appearances in regard to ancestral and civic obligations, and operate as though the social order that supports them has no reality or bearing on their lives. And finally, they have the wealth to convince themselves this is so.

          Precisely because of their contentment to remain ignorant, i.e., their deliberate aloofness, these new elites tend to exercise the power they have irresponsibly and indulgently.  "Their lack of gratitude," wrote Lasch, "disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership [since] . . .they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot--the very definition of meritocratic success."

          Furthermore, it turns out that the methods used by the establishment to sort out the "worthy" and to promote meritocracy merely reinforces the existing distribution of wealth and power.  Allan Hanson, for example, in Testing Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life, reported that "intelligence tests are designed in part to promote equal opportunity, but it happens that test scores are perfectly correlated with mean family income."   That is to say, the tests used in schools to identify the "those most suited to rise" are skewed in favor of rich kids.

          Whether our society is still structured on hereditary privilege or meritocratic principles is a moot issue since both concentrate power and privilege in a small, specialized class.  Though many Americans content themselves with attacks on the former arrangement of power, the "aristocracy of talented" who have emerged in the last century, have proven to be far more ruthless than their antecedents who at least were familiar with the tradition of noblesse oblige.  These elites, mobile and increasingly global in outlook, refuse allegiances to nation or community, and are so insulated by power and wealth that they feel no need to care for what happens to any place.  "One does not think to improve oneself by becoming better at what one is doing or by assuming some measure of public responsibility for local conditions," wrote Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America, "one thinks to improve oneself  . . . by 'moving up' to a 'place of higher consideration.' "

           Acquisition and ostentation is the driving force of meritocrats; the latest trends are the cultural carrots of American life.  This is why the increasing collusion between corporations and schools is so dangerous.  In the onslaught of forces forming desire, children -vulnerable and impressionable- have everything to lose, and corporations have everything to gain by colonizing the minds of "their" prospective consumers.  Whereas the emerging industrial order required a compliant working class, the survival of the corporate order requires a compliant consuming class. 

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          Schools have always supported societies based on hierarchies of privilege and power.  In America, the whole notion of "social mobility through education" is flawed; it is here that revolutionary consciousness has foundered, on the unexamined assumption of upward mobility -the very fabric of the "American Dream."  When ambition no longer seeks a "competence", when "moving up" appears as the only prize worth pursuing, one is more likely to end chained to the convention that money is an adequate goal for life's work, than involved in redefining the American dream, much less working to confront injustice in America.

           Most Americans are so ignorant of the historical record, that they don't know, Lasch wrote, "that the promise of American life [that] came to be identified with social mobility [occurred] only when more hopeful interpretations of opportunity had begun to fade."  Today, Americans are so marginalized, or are so appropriated by a mobilized economy driven by the compulsion to produce, that they are unable to see how confined they are by system that values money over humanity, power over truth, and conformity over creativity.  The pervasiveness of this sweeping epidemic of social blindness, is underscored by the fact that the only coherent demand of those working on behalf of the new social movements (feminism, gay rights, welfare rights, for example) aims at inclusion in the dominant structure rather than at a revolutionary transformation of social relations; instead of developing new patterns in their daily lives, people scramble to seize the same "rights" as those in power; instead of restructuring society from within, activism exhausts itself by banging on the door of the "kingdom." 

          It would be useful to know what the "more hopeful interpretations of opportunity" were that we lost -that were snuffed out l70 years ago by the educational establishment . . . . Not everyone seems to know that history is supposed to teach us what it is to be human and what humans have proved capable of.  Not everyone will have the energy to deconstruct what is false in his or her lives -to construct different visions of social order.   I feel pretty certain that the longer you were schooled the harder it is to discover answers to those questions.  This is because of the high degree of collusion between academics and state policies, and the function of universities -at least those closest to the centers of power- to groom intellectuals in their roles as commissars of culture and society.  As Noam Chomsky pointed out in Manufacturing Consent, establishment intellectuals, as service personnel to the ruling elites, will necessarily have been submitted to the highest levels of indoctrination.

          Bearing in mind what the social philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, that "the aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any," I would argue that schools are one of the most oppressive devices of American society -a "mind industry" whose biggest achievement has been to precipitate a massive failure of social awareness and imagination.

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          To understand this world and its injustices, it is critical to step away from the tools (television, for example) and arenas of indoctrination.  In abstinence from corporate-controlled media, from government schools, from mainstream culture . . . when the world is outside the door and your family is inside, many doors of perception open wide.  When the center of your life can drift back into a form that includes you as someone who is important and your children as valuable unto themselves, than it will be clear that the only opportunities schools provide serve the self-interest of an American Empire that is crashing into the future.

          Displaced from schools, one might recognize the antidemocratic and exploitative nature of the meritocratic educational establishment and acknowledge the absurdity of historical efforts made to link egalitarian ideology with hierarchical structures.  One might begin to see that the promise of "opportunity" is a lie built on the shabbiest visions of humanity and convictions about life.  One might begin to dream about the sort of society R. H. Tawney had in mind when he wrote in Equality, "that opportunities to rise are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization," and "of the dignity and culture" that are needed by all "whether they rise or not." . . . and to realize that any clues about how to build a just society will not be found near the centers of power and influence.

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          Notwithstanding my knowledge that we are all embedded in a particular society on a particular course, I hope that my own children understand my dissent with mainstream culture.  If I am able to instill in them objectivity about the hurricane of false meaning produced in our society, I believe that their capacity to think for and believe in themselves will not be as foreshortened as mine was by the years I spent in school.  My greatest longing is for my children to retain a clarity of mind, to conduct their lives with compassion for others, and to understand the worth of working to create self-sustaining, self-governing communities.  I would like them to be useful and to know and exalt the authentic forms of happiness that can't be bought.   I want them to be capable of sober thoughts, and the action that clarifies what is fair and true.